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How valuable is voter turnout?

In my series on the design of new voting systems, I would now like to discuss the question of high voter turnout as a goal for such systems.

Everybody agrees in enfranchisement as a goal for voting systems. Nobody eligible should find voting impossible, or even particularly hard. (And, while it may not be possible due to disabilities, it should be equally easy for a voters.)

However, there is less agreement about trading off other goals to make it trivial to vote. Some voting systems accept that there will be a certain bar of effort required to vote, and don't view it as a problem that those who will not make a certain minimum effort -- registering to vote, and coming down to a polling station -- don't vote. Other systems try to lower that bar as much as possible, with at-home voting by mail, or vote-by-internet and vote-by-phone in private elections. And many nations, such as Australia, even make voting compulsory, with fines if you don't vote.

What makes this question interesting is the numbers. With 50% voter turnouts, or even less if there is not an "interesting" race, not having trivial voting "disenfranchises" huge numbers of voters. The numbers dwarf any other number in election issues, be it more standard disenfranchisements of minorities or the disabled, or any election fraud I've ever heard about. A decision on this issue can be the most election-changing of any. Australia has 96% voter turnout, and it had 47% turnout before it passed the laws in 1924 compelling voting.

Of course, many people blanch at the idea of working towards pushing people who barely care, or actively don't care, into voting. They will, almost assuredly be minimally informed on the choices, and are surely more easily influenced into voting differently than they would if they studied the choices and acted on their own. There may be no right answer, but it is worth examining the answer built into any system. Compulsory voting remains an issue that still draws controversy even in places who have it, and there is question about whether asking people who don't care much for a choice is good or bad for the system.

There are a raft of election design factors which affect the marginal turnout:

  • In many cases, the "cheapest" way to get votes for candidates is just to increase turnout by apathetic marginal supporters. It's far easier than actually changing the minds of activist voters. As such, get-out-the-vote efforts and drive-you-to-the-polls efforts are popular strategies for spending candidate money.
  • Battles get fought over discouraging voting in districts which won't vote for you, to the point of active disenfranchisement.
  • Voter registration plays a key role. Many programs push for things like motor-voter, or registration on election day. Some feel that loosening registration requirements is a better tradeoff than having so many people not register.
  • Almost all systems allow voters who can't easily vote on election day to vote at an alternate day.
  • In the extreme, many systems allow anybody to vote by mail, or require everybody to vote by mail. Oregon does the latter.
  • In some locations, such as Canada, the law requires voters get 4 continuous hours off work. Some nations have a holiday on election day.
  • Programs have been put in place to ease things for overseas voters, including a plan for vote-over-internet for Americans living or serving overseas. (This is more traditional enfranchisement.)
  • Some election systems are slower, or break down, resulting in lines at the polls. Lines almost certainly discourage voters who see them, or hear about them through the media.

The biggest effort to increase turnout has been to abandon the traditional polling place, allowing a move to vote-at-home, most typically by mail. There is debate about the success of Oregon's project, some arguing that voter turnout is markedly up, others arguing the increase is not so great. If one accepts the former case, it becomes hard to argue for "denying" those extra voters their vote.

In particular, these efforts to increase turnout by having vote at home, or less strict registration to name a few, present compromises with other goals such as unprovable ballot, and voting security. If we like the things that voting machines can give us (better explanations for voters, error checking, access by the disabled) this suggests more radical changes, like vote-by-PC (which can be made secure, at least as far as a DRE can be secure) or vote by phone. If we're talking about tens of millions of voters these concepts can't be so readily dismissed.

Where do you think the tradeoffs lie?


I argue that low voter turnout in a country like the US can indicate a very healthy situation. That is, that the people do not feel that the government is the means to the ends they desire.

Whatever career, business, project, idea, location, relationship they want to pursue, the government isn't in their way and so changing it though political participation is less important.

Compare this situation to that in some South American and African countries where voter participation may be high, but a change of who's in power could result in businesses being nationalized, homes and property seized, and in some particularly unfortunate circumstances, a real threat of death for you and those you love.

For the average American, what threat did they face when the Congress recently moved to majority Democrat? How did their day to day lives change? Did they suddenly have more freedom? Less?

And look at the example of Australia's 47% turnout in 1926. Australians were presumably living fruitful lives without participating in every election. The introduction of compulsory voting meant that not voting would result in the loss of property. Not loss of life or business, just a small bit of property, a fine.

In a broad stroke, it would seem that negative incentives are frequently what drives high voter participation.

And so I think it's incorrect to say that 50% voter turnout represents disenfranchisement because it may be quite reasonable for 50% not to participate because they stand to gain nothing and stand to lose nothing.

For a free nation, I believe it is best if everyone pursues their own happiness. And given that the government is usually not the means to happiness (however happiness is defined), the pursuit of high voter turnout, to me, has little value.

But I think it's actually not on target in recent events. It seems almost certain that had the election gone to Al Gore over GWB, we would not have seen the Iraq war and many other events. That war, aside from having a giant effect on the middle east (and admittedly far less to the average American's daily life) will have long term consequences in world geopolitics and the role of the USA within that. And it all hinged on how election systems are designed. I am interested in design for more than just the US, though in many ways the US presents the most interesting problems -- it has the most money to spend, lots of high-tech, complex elections with dozens of races, county by country control and a need for reform.

But mainly I want to put forward the challenge so that people, as you did, come up with answers to the question, "Why is the fact that tens of millions don't vote only a minor issue?"

The US election system has many flaws of course. Greater even than any voting procedure issues is the fact that it has devolved into a two party celebration of incumbency, with candidates spending a giant chunk of their time in office raising money to buy TV ads for the next election, and becoming beholden to donors in the process. Of course I have a suggestion for that too.

I think it remains on target in spite of current events because we are talking about voter turnout not who you or I would prefer to win an election. If the person that I vote for doesn't win the election, it means a lot of people didn't vote for that person.

To say that this is a general "voter turnout" problem suggests that I want more people who both support and oppose my candidate to turn out when in fact my problem is "Get Out the Vote" for my candidate.

More voters in the 2000 US Presidential election does not necessarily change the outcome of the election. More Gore voters with no additional Bush voters would, but then we're not talking about the electoral process, we're talking about winning elections.

And of course there is the assumption that were Gore President, current events would be better when they could also be worse, in a different way - there's no way to know.

For advocating particular policies or actions in geopolitics, I don't think voter turnout or electoral processes are the place to look unless you wish to bias the system towards particular outcomes. It requires good old fashioned convincing of fellow citizens.

Yes, I was meaning to add a note about the fact that today, the majority of the "get out the vote" or "registration drive" efforts that I see are politically motivated. They hope to increase registration and turnout from a class of voter who is more likely to vote for them. It doesn't have to be that much of a difference to be worthwhile to candidates, and there are neighbourhoods and demographics that swing fairly strongly to one party or another.

With 50% turnout, candidates know that the right get-out-the-vote drives can be the most cost-effective way to add to their total. I can see both good and bad things about that. With high turnout, candidates must shift to swaying undecided voters. Of course they also worry that uninteresting races mean certain blocks of voters don't go to the polls, affecting the minor races on the same ballot which are never enough to bring most voters out. "Ultra-easy voting" would alter those as well.

As for the alternate history, indeed I don't know if it would be better under Gore, but unlike many elections, it's pretty clear this is one where the consequences would have been markedly different. Love him or hate him, GWB is a very bold President. But I didn't want to debate that, but rather to state that it sometimes does make a difference.

It is not an accident that elections have been close. In a 2 party system, both parties will tend towards a position that gets them a victory, but only a marginal one, because going further would require more compromise. You will only get a landslide when one party is particularly smart in picking their candidate, or the other party is particularly stupid, or the times are particularly polarized and there is no way for the competing party to change enough to pick up 50% of the vote without seeming to be copycats or wusses.

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